Oral Histories

Richard Edelman

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Richard Edelman Biography

Richard Edelman is the president and CEO of the world's largest independent public relations firm with wholly-owned offices in 53 cities and more than 3,600 employees worldwide. He was named president and CEO in September 1996. Prior to that, he served as president of Edelman's U.S. operations, regional manager of Europe and manager of the firm's New York office.

Richard has extensive experience in marketing and reputation management, with current assignments for the National Dairy Council, Hewlett-Packard, McGraw-Hill and Scotts Miracle Gro. He has counseled several countries on economic development programs, including Egypt, Israel and Mexico.

Richard won the Silver Anvil, the highest award in the public relations industry, in 1981. He was named "Best Manager of the Year" by Inside PR magazine in 1995. In 2006, he was awarded "Entrepreneur of the Year 2006 - NY Metropolitan Area" by Ernst & Young. Richard was named the "Most Powerful PR Executive" by PR Week in October 2008, for the second year in a row, and "Agency Executive of the Year" by AdAge in January 2008. In 2010, he was named one of "America's Favorite Bosses" (#8) by Forbes.

He serves on the Board of Directors of the Ad Council, the Atlantic Council, the Children's Aid Society and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum, the Arthur Page Society and PR Seminar.


BOLTON: You’ve been at this for a while now.


BOLTON: Can you reflect on biggest challenges or lessons you faced over your career?

EDELMAN: I think that the first thing is to realize that even if I made a mistake, I’d rather act and correct than temporize. And I’ve made some hiring mistakes, I’ve made some acquisitions that probably weren’t the best but you know, you’re going to get up the next day, put your shorts on and get back in the ring. Some element of stamina or just determination, that’s really essential if you’re going to be a senior executive. You’ve got to be able to take the punch, because they’re going to come, and you don’t know when they’re going to come. I think second is, I really learned to be a much more global exec. It’s not just because I travel 90 or 100 days a year, it’s because I’m thinking about that all the time…that NGO risk might arguably come from UK first and how and having met some of them, I internalize that now. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as smart as I need to be about nationalism in China, for example with US brands, but you have to constantly be improving yourself in this learning thing. And then, it’s also a challenge when you take over your dad’s company, let’s be real. And I had several people who were longtime partners of his kind of thinking, what did he do here, naming this guy to run the firm? And I never had that as sort of a chip on my shoulder I just did what I did but I think it’s a special burden, in a way, to have the family name on the door but, it’s a special advantage too. If you’re going to get yelled at, it’s going to be by your dad who ultimately has an interest in your succeeding as opposed to some German who ultimately wants to stab you in the back and bring in one of his henchmen or something.

BOLTON: It’s quite remarkable the firm’s still independent after all these years. Most of your competitors have long since been bought out by large media conglomerates of one sort or another.

EDELMAN: Yeah it’s quite a story and I think when I consider that many in the industry a decade ago were basically saying that we were outmoded and those that were with Omnicom or Interpublic were necessarily going to crush us because clients all wanted a solution that melded the firms, we didn’t see that, we saw in fact that it was going to constrain us much more and that there was a lot further to go. But also appreciate that this is not just a family business. What I mean is, 15% owned by the nonfamily but also, we distribute 40% of the pretax every year to our people and the business model goal for us for the family is to make an 8% or 9% return, it’s not some huge money machine, we need enough to make acquisitions and buy new PCs and re-outfit offices. We built the enterprise with no debt, we have been prudently aggressive in buying up firms, hiring senior people and we make people feel as if they’re entrepreneurs, and they are. If they have good ideas, then bring them. You want to start a business, I give credit to Nancy Ruscheinski, who in ’95 said you know I want to start this thing called Edelman Digital. It’s fifteen years ago we did this. We were the first firm to have a website. And we were the first firm to really appreciate the potential of the web in crisis with Odwalla. This was in ’97, but this is a bottom-up phenomenon. It wasn’t just we have to do this. It’s not so centrally controlled and it’s not run on the basis of the numbers either Roger. It’s not if you don’t make 20% margin you’re toast; if you don’t make 20% margin, do better next year. By the way, we don’t want 20% margins we want 12. That way you serve clients better. And it’s a little old fashioned but actually it’s better because ultimately, clients pay for advice. They’re not really interested in your multiple on Wall Street. So it’s better to be private.